One great thing about the Washington Press Club's annual "Salute to Congress" is the opportunity it affords to run into the familiar famous faces of yesterday.

"Hell, I don't do anything but chase tennis balls and girls," said former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig, looking a golden bronze and quite happy. "That's what happens to old bureaucrats."

He says he's also making a lot of money, and doesn't miss the government "one iota."

Haig was one of the 1,400 guests careening around the Sheraton Washington last night for the club's annual dinner, an insiders' joke-a-thon for journalists and big-name sources from official Washington.

The star performers last night--as usual--were freshman members of Congress who got the chance to make their debut on the Washington scene with either a splash or a crash. The rush to be funny started weeks ago.

Joke anxiety ran high going into the dinner because of last year's mediocre delivery.

Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Mel Elfin explained that the idea was to test these new- See SALUTE, D2, Col. 1 SALUTE, From D1 comers: "Impressions are made that last forever. Sometimes it's silence that does it."

Here's how they fared this year:

"I had the opportunity to go to the White House just recently," said Rep. Bob Mrazek (D-N.Y.). "The president had just finished his light after-dinner remarks on communist imperialism when he and Nancy invited us into the Red Room. I knew the president and I had much in common when Ed Meese toasted McCarthy as the true great senator . . . The president turned to me and said, 'Isn't it a shame what happened to McCarthy and Roy?' and I said, 'But I thought Senator McCarthy's wife's name was Abigail.' "

From Rep. Connie Mack III, (D-Fla.): "What about those Miami Dolphins?" he asked the crowd. "They'll be playing that team with the same name as Secretary Watt's favorite minority group--the Redskins."

"I think Henry Kissinger may be as little burdened by false humility as any of us in public life," said Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who defeated Jerry Brown. "I was once called upon to introduce him. I asked him, 'How do you want me to introduce you?' He said, 'With whatever superlatives come to mind . . .' "

And also from Wilson: "When E.T. phoned home it was Jerry Brown who answered."

"I had to run against Millicent Fenwick," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), "who is a legend in her own mind . . ."

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) put on a plastic nose, glasses and top hat and carried a cane. She bravely waded through her speech, cracking at one point that while Reagan was "the great communicator, Sen. Lowell Weicker is the great pontificator."

Rep. Alan Wheat (D-Mo.) said he was warned that newcomers couldn't even find the bathrooms around Capitol Hill. "And once you get to the bathroom you get to go in based on seniority. I'm 432nd. I'll be going home every weekend."

And then there was the menu: Stay the (Salad) Course; Golden-Aged Beef with Claude Peppercorn Sauce; Dense Pack of Broccoli; KGB Cauliflower (red at heart); New Right Potatoes (with thin skins); Nuke Freeze Bombe with Foreign Influence Topping; and Brazilian Coffee from Bolivia.

The planning for this year's dinner did not start out on a particularly funny note. For a while it seemed that the Eagles--the organization of the GOP's biggest contributors--would hold their annual dinner the same night. This potential conflict was avoided when the Eagle donors ($10,000 a person minimum) switched their date.

Then there was the White House problem.

President Reagan, who the club hoped would attend, wasn't there--nor was he there on videotape. Last year his taped greeting cost the press club $2,000--and the club didn't seem to be in a paying mood this year. So club officers refused the White House offer this time around, saying they were not running a Republican fund-raiser.

Competition was keen among reporters and the news organizations they work for to bring as guests the most glittery government uppity-ups. This year ABC seemed to take the lead with Attorney General William French Smith, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, presidential counselor Edwin Meese, White House communications director David Gergen, Democratic power Robert Strauss, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) and Haig.

Like any good Washington party that brings together the power structure, this one offered the opportunity to do some official and not-so-official business. There was Secretary of State George P. Shultz hugging Margaret Heckler, the secretary-designate of health and human services. And there was transportation secretary-designate Elizabeth Dole running into Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.), who will chair her second day of confirmation hearings today when she goes before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Dole and Stafford huddled by the bar at Newsweek's pre-dinner reception.

"I saw you leaving the White House today," interrupted Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. "I wanted to run after you and say goodbye. It's your last visit--you'll never be back."

"Not quite," said Dole. "I talked to Drew and he said I'll be spending at least a third of my time at the White House."

Dole arrived with her husband, Robert, the Kansas senator. Yesterday her first confirmation hearings had been before the Senate Commerce Committee.

"She did very well today," said her husband.

"I think it went well," she said. "I felt very good about it." She added that she liked the State of the Union address--particularly Reagan's "initiatives taken on behalf of women."

Gobbling from a plate heaped with fruit and hors d'oeuvres, she said she had to prepare for today's last night. "I'm eating here so I won't have to do it at home."

The State of the Union address, which always seems to come shortly before the press dinner, was a ripe topic of conversation throughout.

"I'm always interested to see the pageantry," said House Majority Leader James Wright (D-Tex.). "The rhetoric was very good. We hope it's accompanied by substance."

"There was not enough emphasis on unemployment, and the president isn't really changing from an economic plan that's not working and not fair," said presidential candidate Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).

Haig, standing with his wife, Pat, said he was simultaneously working for his old company, United Technologies, the Hudson Institute, a think-tank, and writing a book "which will be a best seller."

Haig refused to comment on the State of the Union address. "I've served seven presidents. I haven't given value judgments on them in the past and I won't now."

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and his wife, Jane, arrived late at the ABC News pre-dinner cocktail party, where Haig was bantering with other guests. Weinberger said he faced nine congressional hearings on defense matters in the next month or two and was "girding for it." He praised Reagan's address, saying, "He can still light up a whole room with that electric smile."

Nearby, holding a plate containing the remains of several shrimp, stood William French Smith. Smith was discussing Reagan's address with Baldrige. Said Smith: "I think the reception he received . . . was very warm--particularly at the beginning."

"Very warm," agreed Baldrige. "We'll see a real increase in GNP this quarter. Economists are too optimistic for too long going into a recession, and too pessimistic for too long coming out of one."

Meese, who was with his wife Ursula, said the reaction of governors, members of Congress and other officials to the president's address was very positive. "Most people are very pleased with the bipartisan tone," he said.

But most of the talk--and all of the singing--was less than serious. A group called The Arlington Soundworks kicked off the dinner with a barbershop-quartet-style "Reagan's Song," to the tune of "My Way." When southern schools sought tax relief I told French Smith to file a brief. When women shunned my sexist role I bought them off with Liddy Dole. I let Ed Meese write each release, I did it Ed's way.